UAF geobotanist maps new trails in climate change research

Skip Walker, director of the Alaska Geobotany Center, poses for a picture over his Circumpolar Arctic Vegetation Map. Photo by Steph Walden/The Sun Star

By Kelsey Gobroski
Sun Star Contributor

Pursuing multidisciplinary studies brings many atypical experiences, as a UAF biologist discovered last year while trying to protect his expensive equipment, and his head, on a bumpy truck ride on the Yamal Peninsula in Russia. Dr. Donald “Skip” Walker’s research takes him to some rough country, but not usually on the way to the airport.

Walker needed to fly to a remote field site. The Russians assured him the trip to the helicopter would only be three or four hours. “I assumed we were going to be in a nice bus,” he said, knowing from experience that the trip would be at least eight hours. Walker soon found himself standing for 15 hours with 12 other people, in a small box on the back of a four-wheel drive vehicle. He laughed at the memory, recalling it to be “one of the most horrendous [experiences] – just trying to keep the equipment from collapsing and avalanching down on us on this very, very bumpy road.”

Walker, a geobotanist with the Institute of Arctic Biology is the founder and director of the Alaska Geobotany Center, a research group dedicated to understanding changes in the arctic environment by analyzing vegetation patterns and distribution. Walker and his team of multidisciplinary researchers travel the Arctic regions, classifying and mapping vegetation, and evaluating the effects of environmental factors such as climate, atmosphere, soil, permafrost, sea ice and human impacts on the landscape. Walker understands that if you want to learn about climate change, the far north is the place to be.

“If change is going to happen, it’s going to happen fastest in the Arctic.” he said, “The whole climate system on the earth is linked to what’s going on in the Arctic, so it’s important to understand how these processes work.”

One of the most important effects of climate change, Walker said, is its impact on vegetation. “Vegetation really is the key element in the whole earth system. It’s the little thin film that sits on top of the earth; it’s what we feed on, what all the animals feed on, what we use to build our houses. Practically everything we do is somehow linked to vegetation.”

Walker is not a crusader. He doesn’t come down on one side or the other in the climate change debate. “I don’t have an agenda one way or the other, because I feel climate change has been going on since the beginning of the Earth,” he said. But he does believe that it’s something we need to know more about. “There is a big misunderstanding among the public as to what climate change really is, and how it’s affecting things. I think part of our job is to investigate.”

The importance one attaches to Walker’s research may be directly proportional to how much he or she is impacted by the changes that are occurring. “If sea ice melts, we’re going to be seeing very strong, fast changes in the Arctic, there’s no doubt about it. Is that important to people?” he asks. “That’s a pretty sparsely populated area, but for the people who do live there, it is important.”

Most of the research that the Alaska Geobotany Center is currently involved in is related to the Greening of the Arctic initiative. That project includes mapping and recording current ecosystem data in the Circumpolar Arctic, using remote sensing and modeling techniques to develop accurate forecasts, and educating the public and other researchers about the work being done.

Part of the educational component, the Toolik-Arctic Geobotanical Atlas (http://www.arcticatlas.org/), is a web-based collection of geobotanical maps and data compiled by the Center in collaboration with other UAF groups. Edie Barbour, the website designer, says the site design makes it functional for scientists and laymen alike.

Like many scientists involved in cutting edge research, Walker does much of his work with graduate students and the nature of the work attracts students with varied skills. It’s a field that uses several different disciplines to look for common themes.

“He’s done some really interesting science” said Gayle Neufeld, a PhD candidate student working with Walker’s GIS projects. She mentioned that much of his work is related, forming a complex atlas. “It’s not just a bunch of tiny projects,” she said.

Dr. Martha Raynolds, who worked closely with Walker while preparing her PhD said, “He’s a great field teacher, knowledgeable but yet still asking questions himself about why the tundra is the way it is.”

For those interested in geobotany, Walker encourages an interdisciplinary approach. He recommends courses “in geography, soils, geology, hydrology, climatology, taxonomy, analytical skills, GIS is almost essential these days – and remote sensing.” He also mentions the importance of fieldwork. “Whether it’s observing birds, or plants, or clouds, or whatever, you’re observing nature and how it operates. I think that’s true with whatever people do,” he said. “I think it’s one of the most difficult [aspects] because it requires so many different interdisciplinary skills. But it’s highly rewarding … if you can last.”

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